2018 was supposed to be the year. The year that Tennessee Democrats would finally emerge from the political wilderness and win a statewide election again. All national signs pointed to a wave election for Democrats and state party operatives were optimistic that it would wash away a decade of Republican dominance in the Volunteer State. Plus, they believed they had the perfect middle-of-the-road Democrat to win the seat vacated by moderate Republican Bob Corker.
Phil Bredesen, the twice-elected former governor, was polling competitively against his Trump-aligned Republican opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, and money was pouring in from around the country to support his efforts. Demographics in Tennessee had also been changing in Democrats’ favor in recent years, with younger, more educated, and diverse populations moving into the state’s urban centers of Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville.
Bredesen, in fact, was the last Democrat to win a statewide race when he carried all 95 counties on his way to a second stint as governor in 2006, and the party hoped that a Senate victory would be the first step in making the state competitive again.
“A lot of us were excited when Phil Bredesen announced that he was going to run, and polls had him in pretty good shape and we thought he had a great chance,” said Lincoln Davis, a Democrat who once held the 4th District seat.
It didn’t happen.
Bredesen failed to ride the blue wave, losing by 11 points as he carried only two counties, despite the same kinds of demographic changes that have helped other Southern states turn shades of purple. According to current projections, 30 percent of Tennesseans will be minorities by 2030. Given national trends of college-educated voters swinging further to the left, and Tennessee could be on its way to swing-state status; instead, its slate of federal officeholders are as red as those in Mississippi and Arkansas.
Democrats were right back where they started the decade: on the outside looking in.
“In our mind we think we’re a little more progressive, a little more advanced, but I don’t know,” Raumesh Akbari, one of the few Democratic state senators, told The New York Times in October.
“One day Tennessee will be blue again,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, the longest-serving Democrat in the state. “It may be light blue, but we want to be like North Carolina, Virginia, and these other Southern states that are going in the right direction.”
Tennessee did not turn deep red overnight. A combination of mismanagement from state Democrats, savvy moves by Republicans, and institutional limitations have all contributed to the dismal conditions for state Democrats. It all began when Tennessee’s native son, Al Gore, lost his home state to George W. Bush in the 2000 election.
Gore’s loss should have served as the canary in the coal mine for Tennessee Democrats showing that something was changing in the Volunteer State, despite the four Democrats serving in the congressional delegation at the time.
Shortly after the presidential election, a contentious legislative battle unfolded over a proposed state income tax. In a precursor to the tea-party revolt in 2010, conservative lawmakers tapped into populist activism to soundly defeat the income tax. The Tennessee tax revolt, as it came to be known, helped launch the career of Blackburn, who was then a state senator.
Belmont University political-science professor Vaughn May, an expert on Southern politics, credits Republican staying power to the party’s blending of faith and fiscal conservatism. He calls this “the Dave Ramsey effect,” after the popular Nashville-based radio host and financial advisor who played a heavy hand in rallying popular support against the state income tax.
“Republicans have been very successful in fusing together the free-market libertarian crowd and the religious, evangelical crowd. They have used that to become dominant in the state,” May said.
The new brand of Goldilocks Tennessee Republicanism that emerged after the tax clash was neither too conservative nor too moderate, perfectly suited to appeal to the healthy base of evangelical voters in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Since then, Republican primaries have grown into the only competitive elections, and the state has started to trend even more conservative in recent years as candidates play to their deep red base.
Cooper, who represented Tennessee’s 4th District from 1983 until 1995 and has represented the 5th District since 2003, looks at the long arc of history when appraising his party. He thinks the recently turn towards Trumpism just might cannibalize the GOP and open the door for Democrats.
“No party has the self-discipline to maintain a monopoly forever,” Cooper said. “They always overreach and embarrass their own followers.” After detailing a string of scandals plaguing the GOP-controlled statehouse, he added that “Republicans have not had to seriously compete and that’s making them fat, dumb and happy, if not corrupt.”
In theory, Democrats should be well positioned to compete in Tennessee as Republicans shift further to the right. The population has increased by nearly 7 percent since 2010 on the backs of the rapid growth of the tech and health care industries, and a growing nonwhite population.
But you even if you can attract an electorate to a state, you can’t make them vote. The state ranks second-to-last in voter turnout—posting especially dismal numbers among younger voters, who could in theory make up for the rural, working-class votes that Democrats have lost to Republicans. Activists say the party has not done enough to activate a new Democratic electorate in Tennessee.
After the 2016 elections brought progressive frustrations to a boiling point, community activist Charlane Oliver formed Equity Alliance, a Nashville-based organization dedicated to registering people of color to vote and picking up the slack from the state party.
“Truth be told, we're doing the job they should be doing in Tennessee,” said Oliver, who also works in Cooper’s office as a community liaison. “We have a lot of work to do in Tennessee in terms of base building and infrastructure. I just look at it like the Democrats have been asleep at the wheel for a long time.”
While progressives like Oliver and moderates like Davis disagree on the best path forward for the party, they both place the blame squarely on the state party.
“We don't have many state legislators; we have a mayor or two, but we don't have any state legislators that can come up from the farm club to the majors to run for statewide office,” Davis said.
Organizers like Oliver are demanding “bold action” to claw their way back from extinction. “The Democratic Party needs two things: They need a backbone and grow some balls,” she said. “Because the Republicans don't fight fair, and you cannot bring a knife to a gunfight.”
State party chair Mary Mancini, who was elected to her third term in January, admits that her party has struggled to build a bench, failed to make Tennessee competitive, and acknowledges the dire straits the party faces. Yet she promised that Democrats are rebuilding in the state.
“We’re building a Democratic Party for the future, not just the elections coming up next November,” she said.
When asked what she will do differently to change Democratic fortunes, she seemed taken aback by the question, pausing for several silent seconds.
“That’s a really good question,” she finally said. “That’s something I’m going to have to think about a little bit.”